One day near the end of 2014, just a few weeks after arriving in Okinawa, I was at the bank. Talk about creativity striking at the most mundane moments! They had an exhibition of little paintings by 6th graders from one of the local schools. There were about fifteen to twenty paintings, all postcard-size, and some of them were so good! I was intrigued. I flipped through a book full of other examples and explanations of this painting style they had on a table nearby. I couldn’t read very much of the text (it was all in Japanese and I’m still learning), but I could read the title: etegami. When I got home, I looked it up.
Etegami literally translates to picture letter in Japanese. They are meant to be small, quick paintings that express something about a food, a flower, something seasonal, or an observation you make as you enjoy the natural world—kind of like a haiku poem, but in picture form. Then you are meant to send this as a postcard to someone to share your thoughts, hence the letter part. But even if you don’t send them, they’re a fun way to capture an idea or a moment.
I have been painting on and off as a hobby for over twenty years, loving the interesting textures and unexpected outcomes of watercolor the most. So after learning about etegami, I started trying it for myself. After just a couple of paintings I was hooked! In the past I spent weeks or even months on one painting, but this style is meant to be simple and quick so I could start and finish a painting in an hour, or sometimes even twenty minutes. It was, and still is, a great way to do a little something creative without having to change much about your daily routine. I enjoyed doing these little paintings so much that I started an Etsy store to sell them. Etsy is a marketplace for independent artists and crafters to sell their creations. If you want to check it out, my store is called ChisaiLetters (chisailetters.com). Chisai means little in Japanese. (Technically, chisai is spelled chiisai, but that gets confusing when written in roman letters.) If you see something you like, contact me at for an OIST discount.
If you want to try etegami for yourself, here’s a quick primer. First, start noticing the little things around you that you probably see every day but have become part of the background of your daily life. These are the things that you’ll be glad you captured after your time in Okinawa becomes part of your past. I like to keep a little notebook with me to write down ideas or take a picture with my phone of something inspiring. Next, you’ll need a few supplies (see the accompanying list). When you have some ideas and some paints, pick one of your ideas and sketch the outline and maybe a few details out lightly with pencil. Some people like to just jump right in with the ink without sketching, but I find comfort in the fact that I can erase it before I really commit. When you’re happy with the sketch (remember to keep it light or it may show through the paint later), use your brush to ink the outline and any details you want to emphasize. The ink is there to anchor the painting, but the watercolor will bring it to life. As you use the brush, try to hold it upright so that the brush is vertical and perpendicular to the page, instead of at an angle like a pencil. It may feel strange, but it makes the lines you create more free-form than if you control it like writing. Speaking of writing, if you want to add any words to your painting, this is when to do it. You may find it helpful to write in the letters in pencil (lightly), or just go for it and use the brush straight away. Once all the ink is down, you need to wait for it to dry completely. Otherwise, you’ll end up with black smears all through your painting. I like to leave the paintings to dry overnight, but you can also use a hairdryer to speed up the process to a few minutes.
Once it’s dry, it’s time for the most creative—and sometimes surprising part of the process. Get out your watercolors and start mixing! You can add paint to the paper dry, which will give you more of bold flat color, or you can wet the paper first with clean water and then add the paint to it, which will make the paint swirl and pool in interesting ways. It all depends on what kind of look you want. This is also where the water will take on a life of its own and change the painting in a way you weren’t expecting. I won’t go into all the techniques of watercolor painting here, but try different things and play with it. Sometimes the painting will feel done after the paint dries; other times you might want to go back and add more details, either with more paint or with ink. Just make sure it’s completely dry in between adding layers! Once you’re happy with the painting, it’s time to sign it. If you have a hanko, you can stamp the painting with that. You can also make your own stamp from a rubber eraser, or just sign it with a pen or brush. Pat yourself on the back, and be proud of what you made. As with anything, you’ll get better the more you practice.
I hope that some of you out there will try etegami for yourselves! It’s fun, and since the paintings are meant to be simple, you don’t have to worry about creating a masterpiece. It’s all about capturing a moment or something interesting that catches your eye. What better way to commemorate your time in beautiful Okinawa than with a collection of postcards you painted yourself?
Etegami Supply List:
Except for the paper, all of these supplies can be purchased at Tabata, Daiso, or the Oshiro Stationery store near MaxValu in Ishikawa. If you want artist-quality stuff, Green Note Stationery on 58 between Chatan and Ginowan has a good selection.
• Watercolor or thick paper cut down to postcard size. You can buy pre-cut watercolor paper at Oshiro, or Tabata sells a set of plain postcards near the calligraphy items. Daiso doesn’t have the right paper.
• Calligraphy brush and ink, or a self-inking brush
• Watercolor paints and palette (you can buy a set, or individual tubes and a separate palette—the tube paint is higher quality, but can add up if you buy lots of colors)
• Watercolor brushes. I recommend at least two sizes—one medium for big areasand one small for detail work.(Don’t mix your watercolor and ink brushes—it never turns out well)
• Two cups you don’t care about—one for clean water and one for rinsing brushes
• Stamp and red ink pad (optional)
• A pleasant place with good lighting to paint in—your work will turn out better!
Images courtesy of Elizabeth Firmage
Elizabeth Firmage is a freelance graphic designer and artist, married to GIS technician Kenneth Dudley (Economo Unit). Originally from Utah, USA, she also lived in Nagano prefecture in mainland Japan for two years. She came to Okinawa for the beach (oh, and to be with her husband). She can be reached through her website, elizabethfirmage.com.